CORVALLIS — At this point, even the most critical pundits may struggle to find issues with Oregon State's passing game.
With the Sean Mannion-Brandin Cooks connection leading the way, the Beavers are tied with California for the nation's No. 1 passing offense. Mannion became the first player in program history Saturday to throw for more than 350 yards in three consecutive games.
But Danny Langsdorf understands that maintaining such production through the air will prove difficult deeper in Pac-12 play. Coverages will become tighter, windows will become smaller and wide-open opportunities will become scarcer. And when that happens, the Beavers' offensive coordinator reasons, the run game should finally develop.
"I think as we continue to throw the ball," Langsdorf said, "that'll help us a little bit more to run the ball."
But OSU is hardly content waiting any longer to establish a potent ground game. Coaches know a balanced offense is key for any successful team. And they realize that the Beavers' recent production is unacceptable — at any phase of the season.
OSU ranks 117th out of 123 FBS programs with 70 rushing yards per game. The Beavers net more than 86 percent of their total offense through the air, which forces Mannion and Cooks to shoulder considerable pressure.
For coach Mike Riley's team to escape Salt Lake City with a 51-48 overtime win Saturday, Mannion needed a career-high 443 passing yards and Cooks needed to haul in a career-high 210.
It's not necessarily a model for extended success, especially considering six squads remaining on OSU's schedule rank in the top 20 nationally at defending the pass.
So the Beavers hope a new-look backfield rotation can find some momentum at San Diego State on Saturday. Starting running back Storm Woods will miss at least a week after suffering a concussion at Utah, moving junior Terron Ward into the first unit. Redshirt freshman Chris Brown expects to make his first collegiate appearance as Ward's primary backup, and senior Jovan Stevenson could log time as well.
"We've got some depth, and we've got some great kids who work hard," running backs coach Chris Brasfield said. "Terron's been there. He's done that. He knows what we've been doing."
True enough. Ward, who rushed for 430 yards and six touchdowns in 2012, owns 149 career carries. But he will likely need to remedy recent struggles for the Beavers to improve the ground game. He has yet to break off a run longer than six yards this season, averaging just 2.4 on 18 total attempts.
Ward must try not to worry about doing "too much," Langsdorf said. And he must work on hitting the right hole when it develops.
But what about when no hole appears at all?
A reshuffled offensive line and poor overall blocking have triggered many of the Beavers' rushing issues. A series of setbacks forced the Beavers to be creative with their front five. They plugged in new starters at center and right guard, and moved All-America center Isaac Seumalo to right tackle.
Such turnover has impacted running backs' ability to develop chemistry with the big-bodied men in front of them. And many players responsible for blocking — linemen, tight ends, wide receivers — have failed to follow through on assignments.
"I don't have all the answers," said Brasfield, whose crew mustered just 48 rushing yards against a physical Utes front seven. "Obviously we want to be able to run the ball more effectively."
The Beavers may have that opportunity against San Diego State, which owns one of the nation's worst rush defenses so far this season. Even Eastern Illinois, a team that ranked near the bottom of the FCS' Ohio Valley Conference on the ground last year, managed a solid 172 rushing yards against the Aztecs.
So Langsdorf won't offer Woods' absence as an excuse should OSU's run game continue to sputter. Winning teams must eventually gain consistent yardage in more than one way, he figures. The Beavers are no exception.
"We want and need the balance to run and pass," Langsdorf said. "We'll need to improve in that part of the game in order to be successful."